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Freakwater | Thinking Of You (Thrill Jockey)
It's been a staggering six years since Freakwater delivered what many had started to believe was the band's swansong - 1999's elaborate 'End Time'. Whilst the interim years have seen the rest of the nouveau country world shift its goalposts, it seems that earthy traditionalism still has a tungsten tight grip on Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean's recently revived partnership. In fact, even though this long-awaited return to the recording studio sees the de facto duo draft in members of roots experimentalists Califone as a virtual backing-band, it's hardly a great aesthetic leap forward. Indeed, in many ways 'Thinking Of You' is a retrograde step, back to the raw romanticised rustics of 1995's much-loved 'Old Paint' - which is both a blessing and a curse.
To whit, Freakwater's shtick has always been about the glued-together vocals of Bean and Irwin, around which everything else revolves. If your tastes are well-tuned to the Carter Family-Dolly-Tammy-Loretta lineage of gutsy country girl singalongs, then you'll be absorbed with the close-twined combination of Irwin's reedy holler and Bean's yearning twang, captured here in all its glory. The trouble is, if that's not all you came for, then 'Thinking Of You' easily turns out to be a pretty impenetrable and ponderous experience.
Whilst The Right Brothers opens proceedings up well with a rousing sense of reinvigoration, as the album ploughs on almost every track blurs into the next, with the uncomfortable over-familiarity of pedal steel and acoustic strum repetitively ramming the message home.
It's a weakness that's revealed in sharp relief when Bean and Irwin do briefly break themselves free from formula with the soaring honky-tonk of So Strange and the Moonlight Mile-like epic finale of Hi Ho Silver. Also, as with past Freakwater releases, when Bean takes the vocal lead - as on the delightful Double Clutch - things smoulder with a little more warmth than when it's the twosome's tones being over-entangled. Sadly such deviations are too thin on the paths well travelled here, unhappily confirming the view that Freakwater are still ultimately better as an influential concept than as a directly enjoyable reality.